The Next "Hostage" Casualty? The Filibuster
It wasn't very long ago that all the momentum to kill the filibuster was coming from the other side of the aisle. As recently as 2005, President George W. Bush was attempting to appoint a series of arch-conservative judges to the federal judiciary in an attempt to drastically alter the future jurisprudence of the country. In a handful of cases, the 45-seat Democratic minority threatened to filibuster some of those nominees, leading to wailing from then-Majority Leader Bill Frist and conservative Christian groups everywhere that America-hating Democrats were engaging in unprecedented blocking of the right of these nominees to have an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
This blocking was, of course, far from unprecedented--but that didn't stop Majority Leader Frist from pushing for the so-called nuclear option that would end Democratic resistance and pave the way for easy confirmation of Bush's more fundamentalist appointees. At the time, though, cooler heads prevailed, a deal was struck, and the filibuster lived on to see a day when it would become the savior of the Party that had sought its demise no more than a few years prior.
A significant factor motivating the desire for compromise was an understanding among senior members of the Republican Senate caucus--stalwarts like Richard Lugar and John McCain--that they could very likely be in the minority someday, and at that time they would wish they had the same mechanisms of obstruction that their less seasoned and more passionate junior members were now intending on casting aside. And as momentum builds for a reform of Senate rules, there are those in the Beltway circuit who will undoubtedly try to convince Democrats of the same thing. But that argument will not hold: the recent spate of hostage-taking by the Republicans in the chamber has completely changed the nature of the equation.
All things considered, the lame duck session could very easily be considered a victory by Democrats: our soon-to-be-expiring majorities managed to extend unemployment benefits, repeal Don't Ask, Don't Dell, pass a health care bill to cover 9-11 first responders, and renew a strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. The cost was significant: the continuation of a destructive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, as well as a so-called "payroll tax holiday" that could threaten social security over the long run.
Without those costly concessions, none of this would have been accomplished. The votes on DADT, the START treaty and the 9-11 health care bill may have been separate votes, but the Republicans in the Senate seemed to have decided that nothing would get done for the American people until the nation's wealthiest got even more tax breaks. It seems incredible on its face, but yes: the GOP was willing to hold 9-11 responders and our country's nuclear security hostage in order to cater to their base of elites. Democrats have never shown themselves willing to take action this drastic, meaning that as it stands now, future use of the filibuster will be inherently asymmetric, simply because one party has no limits. And even if Democrats were willing to use a future filibuster-proof Senate minority so brazenly, they would still be outgunned by a majority party with even fewer limits that would actually have the power to set the agenda.
The 53 returning Senate Democrats who just lived through this last session understand this completely, which is why they have all signed onto a call for Senate rules reform. The filibuster may have functioned in a bygone era when an atmosphere of collegiality and a shared commitment to the country's welfare ensured that such blockades only ever occurred over the most divisive and contentious issues. But the modern GOP's recent display of commitment to its radical economic agenda no matter the cost has shown that those olden days are long gone--and so, too, must be the old traditions that prevent a majority from actually governing within the bounds of our Constitution.
We don't yet know the extent to which the obstructionist rules of the Senate will be reformed. But the more anonymity is removed from the obstruction process--and the more control a majority of Senators has over the legislative process--the better off this country will be.